John Suthers, Colorado Attorney General, on medical marijuana proposal: "This isn't what the voters approved"

Last week, during the first opportunity to publicly comment on House Bill 1284, an attempt to regulate Colorado's medical marijuana industry that's being spearheaded by Representative Tom Massey, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers was unable to testify. He was in Washington, D.C., on another matter, so he sent an associate, Geoff Blue, to share his office's objections.

But Suthers himself has plenty to say about the measure -- and about criticism from medical marijuana advocate Rob Corry about law enforcement representatives arguing against the bill.

He predicts that if the measure passes in anything like its current form, legislators will look back on it years from now and realize they made a serious mistake.

As Suthers notes, "I'm opposed to the bill. I don't think there's any secret about that. This is not what voters approved in 2000," when the majority cast their ballots in favor of Amendment 20. "And that's not just my view. That's also the view of the Colorado Court of Appeals in Clendenin."

Suthers is referencing The People of the State of Colorado v. Stacy Clendenin, a decision rendered in late October. The matter at hand dated back to 2006, when police raided Clendenin's Longmont home and found 44 marijuana plants, which she said she was growing for her patients. But a Boulder County District Court judge ruled that because she hadn't met with all of the individuals in question, she couldn't claim to have been their primary caregiver, leading to her conviction on cultivation and distribution charges. She appealed, but the appellate court ruled that she hadn't done enough to meet the definition of primary caregiver for the patients who would have wound up purchasing her products -- and also criticized the vagueness of Amendment 20, the state's medical-marijuana measure.

At the time, Suthers released a statement praising the decision. And he also approves of an editorial published by the Denver Post today. That piece suggests that before legislators create a dispensary system, voters should first be asked if they want one.

"I'm 100 percent in agreement with the editorial," Suthers points out. "Voters approved Amendment 20 with a very limited patient-caregiver scheme -- and they voted overwhelmingly against legalization in 2006. They ought to have a crack on the ballot at deciding about dispensaries. We shouldn't move to a dispensary system without voter approval. At least that's where I'm coming from. But there's obviously a lot of sentiment in the legislature to the contrary."

Indeed, Massey, state senator Chris Romer and two other lawmakers have co-signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking that the Drug Enforcement Administration back down on raiding medical marijuana establishments in compliance with current rules in order to give the legislature a chance to shape a regulatory scheme.

At this point, Suthers says he hasn't seen the letter, but he feels comfortable commenting on it in light of a November memo from U.S. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden directing the Department of Justice to steer clear of cases against those involved with the medical marijuana business in states that have legalized it as long as the individuals in question are following state law.

For Suthers, this last caveat is extremely significant.

"I've seen the Deputy Attorney General's letter," he points out, "and I don't quite understand what part of it isn't clear. What he says is that if people are acting in strict compliance with state law, we probably shouldn't expend our federal resources prosecuting them. But are they suggesting that this guy in Highlands Ranch" -- Chris Bartkowicz, whose home grow was raided by the DEA after he gave 9News a guided tour -- "was in strict compliance with federal law? I don't think so. And as long as they aren't in strict compliance, they ought to expect that there will be law enforcement activity."

As such, Suthers believes Holder's response to Romer and company will simply be to refer them to the Ogden memo.

Meanwhile, Rob Corry has claimed that the sight of law enforcement officials testifying against House Bill 1284 was "unseemly." In his opinion, such individuals should be enforcing laws passed by legislators instead of trying to influence measures before they're passed. Suthers scoffs at this argument, in part because such testimony is extremely commonplace, and has been for years.

"We weigh in on all kinds of bills that we believe effect law enforcement," he says. "So I find that to be a very interesting comment by Mr. Corry. The law enforcement officers in that room aren't on the theoretical plane so many people talk about. They're on the streets, and they know what's going on. They've watched the liberalization of marijuana laws in general and seen the rise in marijuana use in teenagers that's resulted. They;ve seen marijuana use among adults be portrayed as normative behavior and how teenagers perceive it -- and how that's led to increased dropout rates and so forth. So to suggest it was unseemly for law enforcement to share this information says a lot about Mr. Corry."

At the same time, Suthers concedes that his office doesn't "have any front-line jurisdiction" when it comes to many marijuana-related offenses -- and if a bill like the current one passes, "we'll follow the law. That's what we're here for."

Nonetheless, he feels strongly that dispensaries "are a violation of federal law -- and it's up to the federal government to say whether they want to expend resources to prosecute them. Right now, they're saying we shouldn't expend those resources, but that could change. Someone else could become president, for example, and that person could say, 'We're going to enforce the federal law.'"

Until then, Suthers intends to continue speaking his mind about the dispensary model.

"I've been criticized by Mr. Corry and others for ignoring Amendment 20," he acknowledges. "In fact, I think I'm one of the few people actually paying attention to what Amendment 20 says. Now, I don't blame them for their strategy. If I was on their side of the deal, I'd be doing the same thing -- and all of a sudden, you've got the legislature thinking there's some right to dispensaries under Amendment 20. But there's not."

What about the contention that because the word "dispensing" appears in the amendment, an approval of dispensaries is implicit?

"That's a huge leap, in my opinion," he maintains. "Now, if the legislature wants to take action statutorily, they can. I think most legislators understand that in approving dispensaries, they'd be taking a leap forward legislatively beyond what Amendment 20 says. And that's their right. They could legalize marijuana in Colorado if they wanted to. But I'd say 90 percent of the e-mails and communication that comes into this office are on the anti-expansion side, with people saying, 'This isn't what I voted for.' And they're right. This isn't what they voted for."

There's no mistaking the passion with which Suthers speaks about this subject -- and he's dedicated to doing so despite the brickbats being tossed his way by members of the medical marijuana community.

"A lot of people say, 'He's just a dinosaur drug warrior,'" he allows. "But I care about future generations, and somebody's got to have their eye on the ball. I've listened to all the debates in the legislature about school dropout rates and so forth, with people trying to understand why it's happening. But has anybody stopped to think the problem is too many kids are coming to school high? That's why we have the dropout rates we do, along with poor parenting -- and this is only going to exacerbate the problem.

"Ten years from now, when members of the legislature look at these rates and see that there hasn't been an improvement -- that they've actually gotten worse -- they'll say, 'We sure made a mistake ten years ago.' That's why somebody ought to point out now that these things have consequences. And I'm perfectly willing to do that."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts